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work place health

Although it may be tempting for someone sitting at a desk all day to stretch their upper back and shoulders, what they actually need to do is strengthen them.Comstock Images

Most of us do it for at least eight hours every day. Sitting at a desk hardly seems like a high-risk pastime – so you'd be surprised at the health problems associated with it.

"This is an issue that is simply not given the kind of limelight it deserves," says health consultant Shelly Ptolemy of Ptolemy & Associates in Calgary. "People say, 'Sitting at a desk all day is just part of working in an office. How can you get tired from sitting all day?' "

Sedentary jobs can lead to myriad health issues, including repetitive strain injuries, and they can also contribute to obesity (and hence a host of other health problems).

Ultimately, that translates into lost dollars for employers, thanks to a decrease in productivity and an increase in the cost of health care and medications.

"It's an epidemic, but there's not enough awareness of what's happening," says Ms. Ptolemy. "We normalize it in the workplace to the point that we consider it just a part of being at work."

Edward Wright, a consultant in Aon Hewitt's workers compensation and disability risk management practice in Toronto, sees this issue crop up regularly. "Sedentary jobs aren't going anywhere," he acknowledges. "So the question is, what can employers do to help employees be active at work?"

First, employers should consider offering employees ergonomic assessments at their work stations, advises Mr. Wright.

Personal trainer Kathleen Trotter has seen ergonomic assessments help her clients. "It can make a huge difference," she says.

A work station that is not set up optimally can result in poor posture, hurting the head, neck and upper back. "The body is like a chain," says Ms. Trotter, so any issues can"extend to the lower back and hip flexors too".

But a properly set-up desk is only the first step. Sitting all day can lead to tiredness simply because blood isn't flowing through the body. Ms. Trotter recommends clients set an hourly alarm to remind them to get up and walk around, talk to a colleague or get a glass of water.

Permission to take breaks sounds like a given, but Ms. Ptolemy says employers need to make it clear that employees are encouraged to leave their desks.

That doesn't mean, however, that employees will take them up on it. "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink," she says. "There's a dual expectation of accountability. I need the [employer]and employee to both come to the table and help themselves."

Mr. Wright emphasizes that the consequences of a sedentary work force can come back to haunt employers. "It has a direct cost to the organization," he says. "Part of the challenge for employers is that sometimes the cost doesn't manifest itself right away, but as the work force ages over time, it leads to increased costs.

"There's a competitive risk, too," he says. "If competitors are doing things to keep employees healthy and you're not, you could be at a competitive disadvantage."

To help employees fight obesity, Mr. Wright suggests employers look at benefit options that perhaps include a subsidy on gym memberships or other fitness activities. "There are ways to design a benefit plan so that it can cover costs related to fitness."

Ms. Trotter says that in general, having a more active lifestyle can go a long way towards combatting the effects of sitting for extended periods. In particular, employees should incorporate exercises into their regular gym routine that strengthen the back.

Although it may be tempting for someone sitting at a desk all day to stretch their upper back and shoulders, what they actually need to do is strengthen them.

"Most people feel it first in the upper back between the shoulder blades, and that's because those muscles get over-lengthened," Ms. Trotter says.

Stretching will only further contribute to the feeling of tightness. Instead, she recommends rolling the shoulders out with a foam roller or getting a massage, in addition to simply moving them by walking around.

Ms. Ptolemy also cautions against ignoring the mental risks of sedentary jobs. "The mental stress associated with sitting is underrated. It leads to a lack of stimulation, and you need stimulation to really be cognitively functional."

Fight desk fatigue

Here's an exercise personal trainer Kathleen Trotter gives to her clients who sit at desks all day to help work their backs and shoulders. "I call it a W to Y," she says. "The trick is not to arch your back."

If you can't keep your arms against the wall because your muscles are too tight, simply leave a couple of inches between your arms and the wall during the exercise.

1. Stand with your back against the wall. Bring your elbows up so that they are at the same level as your head, and move your arms so that they are angled slightly on either side in a W shape (with your palms facing out).

2. Move your arms out of the W shape into a Y shape by straightening your arms above your head, but maintain the angle.

3. Think about the muscles between your shoulder blades as you move back and forth between the W and Y five to 10 times.